The Manifestos: Easy to Digest?

<<This article, first published on the 26th of May, was amended on the 31st following the launch of the SNP manifesto>>

The Conservatives, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrats have now unveiled their 2017 general election manifestos.  Here, the Food Foundation goes through the key points, highlighting how their plans will impact on the UK’s food system and our nutrition and food security.

The issue: Childhood Obesity

The Challenge: More than 1 in 5 children starts primary school overweight or obese; by time they leave this has risen to 1 in 3.  In England, obesity and type 2 diabetes cost the NHS 15% of its budget.

What the parties say: Concerns about childhood obesity made it into all manifestos.  Indeed Labour plans to publish an enhanced obesity strategy in their first 100 days of government, demonstrating the importance they are placing on the issue.

Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats confirm their continued support for the Soft Drink Industry Levy (commonly known as the ‘sugar tax’) introduced at the close of the 2015-2017 parliament, with the SNP and Lib Dems stating they will close loopholes in the current levy.  This could potentially mean bringing sugar-sweetened milk-based drinks, confectionary, or other very sugary products into the levy.  Soft drinks are the largest single contributor of sugar to children’s diets, so this is encouraging.  However, this is just one of a range of measures needed to tackle childhood obesity.

The Conservatives pledge to continue to take action to reduce childhood obesity by promot[ing] efforts to reduce unhealthy ingredients.  We can presume from this that the Conservatives intend to continue encouraging voluntary industry action on reformulation through Public Health England’s work on the sugar reformulation programme contained within their 2016 Childhood Obesity Plan.  But the Liberal Democrats go further and  propose the introduction of mandatory targets on sugar reduction.

Unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems plan to introduce restrictions on the marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children before the 9pm watershed: a measure contained in early, leaked drafts of the 2015-2017 government’s obesity plan before being unceremoniously ditched.  Labour proposes to do likewise, while the SNP also discuss the tightening of broadcast and digital junk food advertising seen by children.  Enhanced restrictions on junk food marketing was absent from all parties’ 2015 manifestos, so their inclusion by Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats is welcome.  However, none of the parties go far enough to meet Public Health England’s evidence-based recommendation, made in 2015, to significantly reduce opportunities to market and advertise high sugar food and drink products to children and adults across all media including digital platforms and through sponsorship [emphasis added]. 

All parties likewise commit to making proposals on product labelling, packaging and other food information: with the Conservatives pointing out that this is one area where Brexit gives UK policy makers greater flexibility than they had before.  The parties go into the most detail on this area, though the Liberal Democrats pledge to encourage the traffic-light labelling system for food products and publication of information on calorie, fat, sugar and salt content in restaurants and takeaways [emphasis added]: with the use of the verb here suggesting they anticipate furthering this policy by eliciting, industry-led voluntary action.

Children establish their dietary preferences when they are young and so nursery and school food is important. Unfortunately, while all parties make various commitments to extend free childcare for pre-schoolers – with Labour and the Liberal Democrats both aspiring for 30 hours of free childcare for children age 2 and upwards – no party focuses on the quality of food served in early years’ settings.  There are currently no requirements for nurseries to have a minimum standard of cooking facilities or food provision and there is no upper limit as to what can be charged for food by nurseries.

Likewise, no party proposes to close a loophole which means several thousand academies and free schools are not subject to the School Food Standards. Indeed, these Standards are entirely absent from all parties’ manifestos, as is the fact that no effective monitoring arrangements are currently in place to ensure the majority of schools which are covered by the Standards meet their obligations.

The parties diverge sharply with regards to free meal provision in schools.  Recognising the link between nourishment and educational achievement, the Liberal Democrats propose extend[ing] free school meals – currently universal for infants and means tested for primary and secondary school aged children – to all… in primary education and promote school breakfast clubs.  Labour likewise commits to introduce free school meals for all primary school children.  The Conservatives, on the other hand, state that they do not believe that giving school lunches to all [infant] children free of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money and are therefore reversing their current policy.  Instead, schools in England will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school, while children from low-income families will continue to receive free school lunches throughout their years in primary and secondary education.

For a party staking an electoral claim for the Just About Managing households this is a surprising stance from the Conservatives.  It will necessitate low income households not eligible for means tested free school meals to make significant dietary and/or financial sacrifices.  Research has shown that less than 1% of packed lunches would meet the School Food Standards, yet many households may now be forced to send their children to school with cheaper but less nutritious meals due to the cost implications of this policy.

The contrast between the parties’ approach to school meal provision highlights the importance of good quality data when developing and assessing the impact of nutrition-related programmes.  No monitoring arrangements were ever made of Universal Infant Free School Meals when the programme was introduced by the 2015-2017 government, despite the huge investments in facilities and workforce that came with its introduction.  This lack of evidence has allowed the programme to be used as a political football.

For this reason, Labour’s commitment to introduce a numeric target – for a 50% reduction in child obesity over a decade – into its proposed obesity strategy is noteworthy.  As is its commitment to introduce a new Index of Child Health to measure progress against international standards, and report annually against… key indicators [including] obesity [and] dental health.  These metrics are part of its ambitious plan to legally require all Government departments to have a child health strategy to set out how they will support the UK’s ambition to have the healthiest children in the world: a bold recognition of the need to develop cross-governmental strategies to tackle complex health issues including overweight/obesity.

The issue: Household food insecurity

The Challenge: The most recent Food Standards Agency survey shows that 8% of adults (and 7% of working adults) in the UK experience food insecurity.

What the parties say:

Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats highlight the explosion of food bank use and identify structural interventions to tackle food bank referrals – with Labour and the SNP targeting the 2015-2017 government’s welfare sanctioning regime, and the Lib Dems stressing the need to signpost food parcel recipients to hardship payments.  However, data from the UN and Food Standards Agency demonstrate that the issue of food insecurity is a whole order of magnitude larger than the issue of food bank usage.

The links between household food insecurity – limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods due to financial constraints – and poor health outcomes, including overweight/obesity, have been recorded internationally.  However, the UK does not currently measure household food insecurity through National Statistics or other routine, nationally representative government surveys.  This prevents policy makers from adequately ascertaining the scale of the household food insecurity, and to target resources on tackling its root causes.

Another gap in all parties’ manifestos is Healthy Start:  a government voucher scheme to help low-income and young families purchase more fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen), in addition to cow’s milk and infant formula. This programme is a vital nutritional safety net but less than 70% of the population that are eligible to benefit from the scheme are actually taking it up. The programme desperately needs to be modernised to improve increase uptake and explore new ways for securing access to healthy diets for those on a low income.

The issue: Securing a healthy, sustainable and resilient food and farming system

The challenge:  Brexit will deliver a major impact on the UK’s food and farming system, which will in turn impact on human and environmental health outcomes both in the UK and internationally.

Food price rises – which are already affecting healthier products more than less healthy products – are only one potential impact of the vote to leave the European Union.  Rules and regulations concerning support for UK producers, and land- and sea-based environmental protections currently come from Europe.  As does much of the food and farming labour force.

What the parties say:

Without the continuation of subsidies of one form or another, one could expect an even more rapid process of farm consolidation to that already occurring, and the potential undercutting of environmental and labour protections as farmers fight for their survival. However, in leaving the   European Union there is also an opportunity to recalibrate the farming subsidy settlement currently channelled through the EU Common Agricultural Policy which currently allocates most of its funds on the basis of farm size, with no regards to the health or environmental impact of a producer.

In imagining a UK Agricultural Policy to replace the CAP, the Conservatives extend their guarantee of the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the [next] parliament.  Beyond this the Conservatives promise to work with farmers, food producers and environmental experts across Britain and with the devolved administrations to devise a new agri-environment system, to be introduced in the following parliament.   Apart from saying they will set up new frameworks for supporting food production and stewardship of the countryside, the Conservatives do not detail to what extent if any they will move away from the current farm settlement in order to better promote health or sustainability outcomes.

The SNP, on the other hand, call for urgent clarity on the long-term protection of current funding levels, and a reconfiguration of agricultural support to better protect Scottish farmers.  Labour talk about reconfiguring funds for farming… to support smaller traders, local economies, community benefits  and sustainable practices: suggesting a move away from Pillar 1 style support through which most CAP funding is currently channelled on a farm size basis to Pillar 2 style support which makes additional funding available for environmental stewardship and rural development.  The Liberal Democrats go further still, talking about refocusing support towards – and creating a national food strategy to promote – healthy food and public benefit. This is a very interesting development and the first time a connection between farming and health has been made.

Farming is disproportionately reliant on migrant labour – both seasonal and permanent – so each parties’ migration policies are highly pertinent to the food system.  The Conservatives continue targeting a reduction of annual net migration to the tens of thousands with a focus on migrant workers with higher (and formally recognised) skills.  The SNP on the other call, call for a confirmation of the right for EU workers to remain in the UK, and float the value of devolving migration policy to Scotland to help safeguard the success of [the] food and drink sector; the Liberal Democrats continue to voice support for the principle of free movement; while Labour propose a reintroduction of the  Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme: a temporary visa scheme phased out in 2004 when the accession of Eastern European nations to the European Union took place.

Regarding environmental protections, the Conservatives again promise the delivery of a long-delayed comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan that will chart how [they] will improve our environment as we leave the European Union and take control of our environmental legislation.  Beyond an initial acquis into UK law through the planned Great Repeal Act, the Conservatives do not specify that existing environmental protection from the EU will be retained. The red tape challenge, described elsewhere in the manifesto may point to the future of some of these protections.  The Liberal DemocratsLabour, and SNP go further in safeguarding current protections, with: Labour committing to retain such regulations fully protected without qualification: the Liberal Democrats proposing new regulations such as suspending the use of neonicotinoids until proven that their use in agriculture does not harm bees or other pollinators; and the SNP in maintaining current animal and plant health, environmental and food safety standards. The SNP also proposes the retention of geographic point of origin indicators to safeguard the interests of Scottish food and farming producers.

In terms of where farm policy will belong post-Brexit, we are left with a general lack of clarity.  By stipulating that the UK government will protect the interest of Scottish [and Welsh] farmers as [they] design [a] new UK farming policy, the Conservatives appear to make a claim for future farming policy on behalf of Westminster and Whitehall.  Labour and the Lib Dems propose, elsewhere in their manifestoes as general points of principle, a presumption of devolution and home rule for the devolved nations respectively: suggesting that under their governments, farming policy could become a devolved issue.  The SNP states their MPs will fight for the garuntee that all EU powers and funding for farming will return to Scotland.

Regarding fisheries, Labour states that funding and additional support – including an innovation fund – channelled through a post Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) will be reoriented towards smaller traders.  Labour also proposes the introduction of a blue belt of protection to safeguard the UK’s coastal species and wildlife: a proposal also made by the Liberal Democrats, which further proposes a co-created industry plan for sustainable fisheries.  The Conservatives’ new fishing policy meanwhile reaffirms their intent to withdraw from The London Convention – potentially opening the door to allowing only UK vessels within territorial waters.  The SNP, a long-time critic of the CFP, call for current levels of EU fisheries funding to be matched and transferred to Scotland, along with the repatriation of all relevant policies and powers.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose an extension of the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s (GCA) role and remit, an issue the Conservatives are silent on.  The GCA was established by the 2010-2015 government to regulate the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers to mitigate against unfair trading practices – such as missed payments or unexpected costs.  Producers, trade unions and NGOs, including the Food Foundation, have been campaigning for an extension of the GCA, as currently only the relationships between the largest supermarkets and their direct suppliers are covered by their remit: meaning unfair practices could be passed down supply chains, impacting onto sub-suppliers and primary producers.  Considering contractual relations not covered by the current remit of the GCA, the SNP propose a review of the Voluntary Code of Practice introduced in 2013 to mediate relations between farmers and dairy processors. 

Only the SNP recognise the State’s role in driving up demand through government procurement to support the food and farming sectors.  They propose to press for relevant UK government departments and agencies to achieve the Food for Life catering award and to purchase more quality Scottish food produced to current farm assurance standards.

Regarding trade negotiations, Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrat’s commit to remain within the Single Market and the Customs Union while the Conservative’s commit to fully withdraw from, and subsequently attempt to recreate, such agreements.  All parties are committed to avoiding a hard border between the Republic Ireland and Northern Ireland – again a key issue for food and farming as huge quantities of produce pass between the nations.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means a redrawing of trade agreements with the rest of the world – potentially impacting on health and environmental factors both in the UK and internationally.  Labour describes an ambition where Britain continues to set the highest standards in food quality and welfare… not allow[ing] Brexit to be used as an excuse to undercut our farmers and Britain’s food chain with cheap and inferior produce while also promot[ing] cruelty-free animal husbandry: suggesting trade negotiations will prioritise some form of market, health and welfare protection.  The SNP will resist any dismantling of Scotland’s GM-free status and commitment, and call for greater transparency and multi-parliamentary involvement in the development of international trade deals. The Liberal Democrats similarly propose that future trade deals require high safety, environmental and animal welfare standards for food imports, including clear and unambiguous country of-origin labelling for meat and dairy products.  They also interestingly propose that Sustainable Development Goals audits be introduced with all new trade, investment and development deals: linking future trading developments with this international sustainability framework.  The Conservatives also propose some measures which would require some deviation from the outright championing of free trade: promising action to improve animal welfare and steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter.

The Food Foundation comments

There are some key areas of distinction between the parties when it comes to food.  Food is still seen as a largely personal issue.  It is also clear that food is not yet getting the degree of political priority it deserves. The facts are staggering and we urgently need visionary leadership from the next Government to reform and reshape our food system to protect us and our planet.

President Barack Obama, recently spoke on how food system issues interact with the challenges of climate change that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than any other.

UK policy makers and influencers need to likewise elevate the importance of food system issues in policy making.  For voters, one place this can be done is at the polling booth on election day.